The art film
This week's readings | Australasian art films
- Last Year at Marienbad [L'année dernière à Marienbad] (Alain Resnais, 1961)
- Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
- The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002)
- Visitors (Richard Franklin, 2003)
- Metal Skin (Geoffrey Wright, 1995)
- Alexandra's Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003)
- Golden Braid (Paul Cox, 1991)
Man of Flowers (Paul Cox, 1983) 91 min.
Tom O'Regan suggests that the first art film to be made in Australia is Giorgio Mangiamele's Clay (1965; aka Argilla), which was written, photographed and edited by the director. (O'Regan 1996: 171, 223) Clay, the first Australian film to be shown in competition at Cannes, was dusted off for the Weird Mob festival of films about the Italian presence in Australia, Sydney 24-29 May 2005. [Mangiamele's films were restored and released in a 2-DVD box set in 2011.]
As an immigrant from Italy in 1952, Mangiamele brought with the neo-realist sensibilities of Rossellini and Fellini, but as a European he also had a strong sense of cinema as art, and Clay was a visual poem, according to Variety "brought to life with some breathtakingly poignant and arty shots". (Higson 2005: 10)
As I point out in my chapter on the art film in TTAF, Andrew Tudor's examples of 'art movies' are European: The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1956), L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) and La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1959). (Tudor 1974: 145; quoted in Neale 2000: 19)
Another way to introduce this topic is to point to the dichotomy between entertainment and art in Australian cinema. One exemplum: the contrasting careers of Charles Chauvel and Ken G. Hall. The latter always brought his films in time, under budget and made a profit. Chauvel is seen as the pioneer art director, with films like Jedda (1955).
Let's start the show with a single example from the work of a single European director, Alain Resnais, and his enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad (1961, wr. Alain Robbe-Grillet)Still from L'année dernière à Marienbad. In this surreal image, the couples cast long shadows but the trees do not. ====>
The film begins with a five minute sequence - before any characters are introduced - with a endless, repetitious movement through the luxury hotel. At last we find some people.
[clip: "people" 5.50 - 9.00 - end of play]
These are the points derived from my chapter on the art film in Ten Types of Australian Film that I'll attempt to illustrate in this presentation (references are here).
- narratological criteria: lack of goals, different psychological motivation: "the drifting protagonist traces out an itinerary which surveys the film's social world" (Petley 1999: 109, quoting Bordwell, 1985: 207).
- art cinema as self-reflexive: "the narrational act interrupts the transmission of fabula [story] information and highlights its own role" (Bordwell 1985: 209)
- art cinema is more interested in style than narrative: "Dreams, memories and fantasies abound, and are transcribed by means of optical point-of-view shots, modulations of light, sound and colour, freeze-frames, slow motion and a host of other cinematic conventions for connoting the subjective." (Petley 1999: 109-110)
- "range of mise-en-scene cues for expressing character mood: static postures, covert glances, smiles that fade, aimless walks, emotion-filled landscapes, and associated objects" (Bordwell, 1985: 208)
- "real contemporary problems such as 'alienation' or 'lack of communication'" (Petley 1999: 108, following Bordwell, 1985, np.)
- art film and auteurism
1. narratological criteria: lack of goals, different psychological motivation: "the drifting protagonist traces out an itinerary which surveys the film's social world" (Petley 1999: 109, quoting Bordwell, 1985: 207).
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
This is the moment, only half an hour into the film, where the three girls enter the Rock. One of them actually looks down on their school party and wonders "whatever can those people be doing down there ... like a lot of ants". She says they are "without purpose". Miranda (Anne Lambert) then says that "everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place". The girls then disappear into an alternative temporal universe. Phillip Adams has called this "a piece of horse-drawn science fiction". Barry Humphries called it "The Rocks That Ate Children". Note the low-frequency rumbling and other weird noises: did David Lynch see this before he made Blue Velvet? ... Nice lizard. [clip "rock" 30.02 - 33.24]
2. art cinema as self-reflexive: "the narrational act interrupts the transmission of fabula [story] information and highlights its own role" (Bordwell 1985: 209)
The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002)
In the clip from Picnic at Hanging Rock, I drew your attention to the ants and the lizard. These are not part of what Bordwell calls the "fabula" (most people, including Bordwell & Thompson, call this "story"): they operate in the "syuzhet", the plot, including style - and also in the "sub-text", or the thematic or ideological level. They point to possible "philosophical" meanings of the film.
For a much cruder example, here is Rolf de Heer's way of dealing with (literally) unspeakable violence in his story (fabula/fable) about the 1922 manhunt in The Tracker. Rather than show everything that happens in the story, he prefers to represent it in a painting and in song. Whatever you want to call it - "syuzhet", or style, or euphemism - it's certainly an interruption to the flow of filmic narrative.
By the way, if you want a definition of the distinction between story and plot, "fabula" and "syuzhet", you might have already read one in this reading from Todorov: "... the Russian Formalists ... distinguished ... the fable (story) from the subject (plot) of a narrative: the story is what has happened in life, the plot is the way the author presents it to us. [clip "attack" 14.13 - 17.35]
3. art cinema is more interested in style than narrative: "Dreams, memories and fantasies abound, and are transcribed by means of optical point-of-view shots, modulations of light, sound and colour, freeze-frames, slow motion and a host of other cinematic conventions for connoting the subjective." (Petley 1999: 109-110)
Radha Mitchell with Susannah York
Visitors (Richard Franklin, 2003)
This is about the state of mind of a lone sailor who has become delusional due to sleep deprivation and "cabin fever". The film is mainly a thriller, but like many thrillers takes an interest in states of mind, altered states of consciousness, to create an effect in the viewer. I'll show you the third and last appearance of Georgia's dead mother - who arises from the bilges (the unconscious?) while Georgia is talking to her unfaithful partner and his girlfriend (who is also Georgia's sponsor's rep). [clip "mother" 1.16.03 - 1.19.33]
4. "range of mise-en-scene cues for expressing character mood: static postures, covert glances, smiles that fade, aimless walks, emotion-filled landscapes, and associated objects" (Bordwell, 1985: 208)
Roslyn (Nadine Garner) wandering amid seatainers
The opening of Wright's film shows Roslyn (Nadine Garner) apparently bemused and somewhat overwhelmed by her surroundings, the containers. Quick intercuts introduce the action of Crazy Joe (Aden Young) and show both the race and the scene before it alternately. Geoffrey Wright is the director who gave us Romper Stomper (1992) and Macbeth (2006). He has directed very few films, but they have been distinctive. (Not so sure about Cherry Falls  - but he didn't write that one.) [clip "start" - 2'55"]
5. "real contemporary problems such as 'alienation' or 'lack of communication'" (Petley 1999: 108, following Bordwell, 1985, np.)
Alexandra's Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003)
Steve comes home from work to find his wife, Alexandra, and two children not there. But there are birthday decorations and a videotape that says Play Me, so he puts it in the machine. She's on the TV screen on his birthday videotape, he's in the room on film. He has the remote control - or does she? [clip "cancer" 44.57 - 49.06]
6. art film and auteurism - as illustrated in this case by Cox's apparently personal imagery and stylistic tropes: movement, trains, water ...
The final moments of Golden Braid: the main characters have left the screen
Golden Braid (Paul Cox, 1991)
Five clips show scenes which are not part of the story: a woman and a cow, scenes of Venice, the two main characters inside and outside of a train, and then inside and outside of a grave; finally: an indeterminate ending. As O'Regan writes of Cox's My First Wife (written by Cox and Bob Ellis): "It relies on an interiorizing of conflict, upon states of mind, feelings, sentiments which find their expression in repeated scenes." (O'Regan 1996: 63) (Clips in this order: "cow" 8.24 - 9.31, "stairs" 12.56 - 14.16, "braid" 36.05 - 37.24, "grave" 1.15.30 - 1.16.33, "ending" 1.24.58 - credits) [Paul Cox appears around 55' as a priest.]
Main screening: Man of Flowers (Paul Cox, 1983) 91 min.
Elsaesser, Thomas 1994, 'Putting on a show: the European art movie', Sight and Sound, 4, April: 22-27.
Higson, Rosalie 2005, 'Talking about my generazione', The Australian, 18 May: 10.
Neale, Steve 2000, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York.
O'Regan, Tom 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London.
Tudor, Andrew 1974, Theories of Film, Secker & Warburg, London: 139.
New: 10 March, 2004 | Now: 8 February, 2012